Friday, January 30, 2009

The Atlas of True Names

I’m coming to this late, but as it’s right up my alley, I couldn’t resist. Has anyone here seen the Atlas(es) of True Names — published by Kalimedia? These are beautifully produced, and not very expensive, etymological maps of the World and Europe. The Frankfurt Review said of them: “Middle Earth [sic] is alive!” And indeed, I think Tolkien would have approved of the idea very much; and of course, seeing these etymological maps of the real world have put it into my mind to produce a similar one for Middle-earth (if nobody has done this already).

As you can see from the snippet above (click to enlarge, slightly; visit the link above for some larger illustrations), the maps are really quite fascinating. Like Bilbo, I love maps and could easily stare at them for hours. In fact, here in my office at work, I have a large map on my wall. No, not Middle-earth; it’s a January 1970* map of the West Indies and Central America. (Why? Because I’ve traveled to several places represented on this map, and I like to look at them from time to time. And like I said: I love maps. That’s reason enough, isn’t it? I have a map of the British Virgin Islands in my bathroom at home, too.)

Language Log has examined the Atlas of True Names, back in November, with a more thorough post than this one. They note (as I would have) that “the cartographers [of the Atlas] have accepted a good number of disputed derivations and folk etymologies.” The creators of the Atlas have acknowledged that “not all translations are definitive,” and anyway, it’s still great fun.

Shortly after Language Log, the Strange Maps blog posted on them too, with this amusing observation:
The Atlas was first published in German as Der Atlas der wahren Namen, and in that version all the original etymologies are of course rendered in German. If like most people you are at least mildly conditioned by movies, literature and other media dealing with World War II to associate the German language with fascism, this ‘germanified’ version of the world is a bit disconcerting.
I’ll bet! If you’re interested in the German versions, there are actually three: the World, Europe, and Germany (plus Austria and Switzerland). Considering the richness of toponymic etymology in England, I hope somebody is working on that atlas now. I’ll be sure to let you know if I come across one (or if I decide to take a stab at Middle-earth).

* Belize is identified as British Honduras. :)

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The etymology of “gavel”

Stop your caviling!I think most everyone knows what a gavel is: “a small mallet used by a presiding officer or an auctioneer to signal for attention or order or to mark the conclusion of a trans-action” (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed., sense 1). There’s another kind of gavel, too, which might seem to better fit the usual subject matter of Lingwë — “tribute or rent in ancient and medieval England” (AHD, sense 2) — but I’m more interested in the first. Why? Because of the difficulties of its etymology. For sense 2, the etymology is unexceptional (OE gafol). Not so, the more familiar sense 1.

Of that word, AHD says nothing more than “origin unknown”. The Random House Unabridged (quoted by basically agrees: “1795–1805, Americanism; orig. uncert.” Encarta Online says only: “Early 19th century. Origin ?” And Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary is apparently flummoxed: “Etymol. uncertain.” Even the venerable Oxford English Dictionary fails us, giving no etymology, but thrusting it out of their jurisdiction as “U.S. Only.” Well, that’s just not good enough, is it?

The word is not in Skeat’s etymological dictionary (perhaps entering common usage a little too late for it), but Eric Partridge has taken a stab at it in his more recent dictionary. There, he acknowledges it to be “o.o.o. [of obscure origin], but perh[aps] akin to kevel, a hammer for stone-shaping or –breaking, itself o.o.o., but prob[ably] akin to naut[ical] kevel, a strong cleat or timber for fastening a vessel’s heavy lines” [1]. The origin of the nautical kevel is through Old North French keville “wooden peg” (OF cheville), from Latin clāvicula, diminutive of clāvis “key”. Hmmm. I find myself in the rare position of being unconvinced by Partridge.

But wait a moment: let’s back up. Setting aside this unnecessary nugget of nautical nomenclature, kevel = “a stonemason’s hammer” has promise. A gavel is a kind of a hammer, after all. So what about a kevel? Some dictionaries have nothing to offer for the etymology of this word (e.g., RHU), but WRUD points to cavil as an alternate spelling. But cavil is also a verb, meaning “to raise irritating and trivial objections”, derived from OF caviller “to cavil, wrangle, reason crossly”, from Latin cavillārī “to jeer, scoff, quibble”, in turn from from cavilla “jeering, jesting, or banter”.

Now, I think we’re getting somewhere! What the connection between kevel = “hammer” and cavil = “argue” might be, if any, I will leave to your imaginations for the moment, but caviling certainly seems relevant to the idea of the gavel used in the auction-house or courtroom. After all, one uses a gavel to interrupt caviling. Partridge ventures that L cavilla might, by dissimilation, derive from L calvāri “to deceive”, while Skeat says its origin is “unclear”, but I have another idea. Actually, I have two.

First, could cavil be related to caw, as in “the hoarse raucous noise of crows and other birds”, clearly of onomatopoeic origins? It seems a reasonable metaphorical picture to me: cawing, chattering, “arguing” birds = arguing people: that is, caw qua cavil, Q.E.D.?

Second, and better, could cavil (and/or gavel) be related to gabble, the frequentative form of gab “to talk idly or incessantly, as about trivial matters”? What is a gavel for but to quiet down idle chatter? The word gab(ble) comes to us from ME gabben “to talk idly”, also used in the sense of “to lie, delude” (cause for concern in the courtroom, without a doubt!); and previously, from ON gabba “to mock, make a game of one”. Skeat calls the ON gabba “of imitative origin”, which sounds right on to me. It’s part of a cluster of similar onomatopoeic words (which, for brevity, I will save for a future post).

The sonic and semantic distance between the words cavil, gavel, and gabble seems quite small to me: I would find a relationship between them plausible, even probable. Far be it from me to second-guess Partridge or Skeat — not to mention the erudite men and women on the etymological teams of the various dictionaries cited above — but I feel pretty good about this. Although gab(ble) has a Germanic provenance and cavil a Romantic one, both are thought to be imitative; hence it’s not at all out of bounds to think they might have a common ancestor form. They’re also similar enough in form and function to have become conflated into gavel through protracted courtroom or auction-house usage, or even to have been blended deliberately into a kind of portmanteau.

What do you think? (And don’t all talk at once, or I’ll have to bring down the gavel to restore order. :)

[1] Partridge, Eric. Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. 2nd ed. New York: Macmillan, 1959, p. 248 [The 3rd ed., 1961, is substantively the same].

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

New Tolkien material coming this summer!

Has anyone else just seen this? According to The Tolkien Library, this May will bring us The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited and introduced by Christopher Tolkien. From The Tolkien Library —
The previously unpublished work was written while Tolkien was professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University during the 1920s and ’30s, before he wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The publication will make available for the first time Tolkien’s extensive retelling in English narrative verse of the epic Norse tales of Sigurd the Völsung and the Fall of the Niflungs.
And from David Brawn, of HarperCollins UK —
It is an entirely unpublished work, dates from around the early 1930s, and will be published – all being well – in May this year. Otherwise the clue as to what the book will contain is in the title – THE LEGEND OF SIGURD AND GUDRUN. You will surmise from this that it is not a Middle-earth book, but we are confident that Tolkien fans will be fascinated by it.

Certainly something to look forward to! At least for the medievalists among us; pace Brawn, I would think the work will have only the most limited appeal to mainstream fans of Tolkien’s fiction. For those unfamiliar with the story of Sigurd and Gudrún, follow the link above for a summary of the Norse subject matter The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún is expected to treat.

I suspect this work must be the “long unpublished poem entitled ‘Volsungakviða En Nyja’, probably written in the late 1920s or early 1930s. Tolkien described it, in a letter to [W.H.] Auden dated 29 January 1968, as ‘written in fornyrðislag 8-line stanzas in English: an attempt to organize the Edda material dealing with Sigurd and Gunnar’” [1]. Coincidentally, I was just discussing this poem with someone no more than a week ago. The title is Old Norse and may be translated, more or less, as “The New Lay of the Volsungs”. How good is it, this poem? No way to know that yet, of course, but Tolkien described it as “a thing I did many years ago when trying to learn the art of writing alliterative poetry” [2]. No doubt some will accuse Tolkien’s publisher, HarperCollins UK, of scraping the bottom of the barrel here, but even Tolkien’s “practice works” (perhaps even especially his “practice works”) hold great interest to scholars.

What is also unclear is the precise meaning of “long unpublished” in the note above — is it “long, unpublished” (i.e., the poem is long and has not yet been published), or is it “long-unpublished” (i.e., no comment on the length of the work, but rather on the duration of its languishment). Tom Shippey has pointed out that there is an 8-page gap in the Codex Regius manuscript of the Poetic Edda, specifically in the Sigurðr cycle [3]; if Tolkien’s poem was meant to fill that gap, as Shippey supposes, then we have reason to think it must be fairly short. If it is, then I hope the publisher doesn’t go overboard puffing it up into something “book-length” in the interests of profit. That may be a futile hope, but we will be very happy to have it, whatever its form.

UPDATE — On the other hand, if we’ve identified the right poem, and if its companion is also published with it (as seems likely), then we may have a pretty substantial publication after all. As Ardamir pointed out in the comments (below), the two poems are 339 and 166 stanzas, respectively, each of eight lines, for a total of more than 4,000 lines. Based on the number of lines per page in The Lays of Beleriand, this would translate into something on the order of 115 printed pages. Even with an introduction and other front matter by Christopher Tolkien, that’s still a fairly short book, but not as short as I feared. Nor is it likely to be a simple gap-filler for the eight lost pages in the Codex Regius. Perhaps Tolkien began with this in mind, but in his usual way, eventually embellished it far beyond its original ambit. And so, mirabile dictu, we have a new book by Tolkien — a mere seventy or eighty years later. :)

[1] Tolkien, J.R.R. Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981, p. 452 [note 3 for Letter #295].

[2] Ibid., p. 379.

[3] Shippey, Tom. “Tolkien and Iceland: The Philology of Envy.” Roots and Branches: Selected Papers on Tolkien. Walking Tree Publishers, 2007 , p. 192.

Friday, January 2, 2009

New BBC collection includes Tolkien recording

First off, Happy New Year! :)

Now, a news item. I just heard about this today, though it’s possible it’s old news to some of you. At the end of this past October, the BBC released two interesting audio collections: The Spoken Word: British Writers and The Spoken Word: American Writers. Each is a three-disc collection featuring rare recordings of eminent writers from both sides of the Atlantic. You can read more details here, but allow me to spotlight a couple of things.

The British series includes a recording of J.R.R. Tolkien, presumably the 1971 Dennis Gerrolt interview from the BBC Radio 4 program “Now Read On ...” Whether it’s this interview or not, this would be a nice thing to have on CD. But the collection has much more as well, including the only surviving recording of Virginia Woolf, made in 1937; a recording of the late Harold Pinter; Graham Greene (one of my favorite writers) discussing a childhood memory which would find a place in one of his most celebrated short stories; Rudyard Kipling, E.M. Forster, P.G. Wodehouse, Arthur Conan Doyle, and others. There are also a couple of recordings that will be of some interest to Tolkien scholars: Algernon Blackwood and G.K. Chesterton.

The American series looks just as good. It includes recordings of F. Scott Fitzgerald (one of only three surviving recordings; here, he’s reading from Shakespeare’s Othello, of all things, in 1939), Arthur Miller (discussing his marriage to Marilyn Monroe), Gertrude Stein, John Steinbeck, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, and more.

Each set is £19.50, which seems pretty reasonable to me. You can read the full track-listings and purchase either set by following the link at the top of the post. The other links salted throughout the preceding two paragraphs are to samples of each respective recording, from the website.

Update: Thanks to Andrew Ferguson, I can give you a bit more detail on the Tolkien recording (this, from the information booklet that comes with the CD set):
J.R.R. Tolkien[1892-1973]
Born in Bloemfontein, South Africa

The Fellowship of the Ring
Interviewer: Denys Gueroult
Date of recording: 20/01/1965
Venue: Randolph Hotel, Oxford
Duration: 11.44 [extract]

This lengthy interview, nearly 40 minutes in total, is the longest surviving recording made by J.R.R. Tolkien. It was recorded for the BBC Sound Archive and was not transmitted. The interview comprises a detailed discussion about his most celebrated work The Lord of the Rings (1954–5). By the mid 1960s, the time of this recording, the books had attained wide popularity on both sides of the Atlantic. As well as being an author of fantasy novels, Tolkien was professor of Anglo Saxon from 1925 to 1945, and Professor of English Language and Literature from 1945 to 1959, at the University of Oxford.
Thanks, Andrew! I’m not certain that the claim, “longest surviving recording made by J.R.R. Tolkien”, is accurate. Weren’t some of the recordings Tolkien made himself longer? But longest recorded interview is probably what they meant. Also, regarding the spelling of the interviewer’s name, yes, there has been some confusion over that. Varied forms have been recorded, including Denys, Denis, Dennis, and even David for the given name, and Gueroult, Gerrolt, Gerroult for the surname. Which one is correct? No idea!